Film of the week

The Kids Are All Right (15)


Starring: Julianne Moore, Annette Bening, Mark Ruffalo

There is a moment in the Woody Allen comedy Manhattan (1979) when Diane Keaton's character claims a male parent is no longer necessary and that two mothers raising a child is "absolutely fine". "Oh really?" says Allen. "Because I always feel very few people survive one mother". Well, lo, 30-odd years later, we at last have a film which sets out to test Keaton's theory, and the surprise of it is that writer-director Lisa Cholodenko not only turns the issue into a fair fight (she has a female partner and a child) but makes of it something piercingly funny, subtle and moving.

A surprise? Given that same-sex parenting is such a hot potato in the US, and given Hollywood's innate conservatism, the temptation might have been to present a righteous manifesto for gay marriage. Instead, Cholodenko takes the much bolder route in making a comedy about it, a serious comedy that values character and emotional ambiguity over the exigencies of a political "issue". In fact, its most radical assertion might be that two mothers can create a home that's quite as traditional – and flawed, and vulnerable – as one run by a mother and father.

The mothers in question are a doctor, Nic (Annette Bening), who's the stern, somewhat controlling half of the partnership, and Jules (Julianne Moore), a flightier, less focused type who's considering a change of career in landscape gardening. They live in an affluent, middle-class suburb of Los Angeles with their two teenage children, college-bound Joni (Mia Wasikowska), named after the songstress, and her younger brother Laser (Josh Hutcherson), named after who-knows-what.

Responsible Joni decides that her brother might need a male role-model in his life, so, without telling their moms, they seek out the anonymous sperm donor who is father to both of them. He turns out to be a laid-back dude named Paul (Mark Ruffalo), who rides a motorbike, runs an organic local restaurant, and uses the word "cool" a lot. "I'm totally into 'local'", enthuses Joni, who likes this stranger, her dad; Laser isn't quite so sure – "he's a little into himself", he remarks, judgmental in a way that the two mums are but would never let on. The first family gathering with Paul is a wonderful miniature of social awkwardness; just note the stiffening froideur on Nic's face when she hears that Paul dropped out of college: they'd only selected him because he was majoring in international relations.

Cholodenko, working from a script she wrote with Stuart Blumberg, displays a kind of panoptic sensibility here: she understands the situation from all points of view. So, while Nic has worked too hard at running a family to regard Paul as anything but a cuckoo in the nest, we can see why Jules might respond to his easy-going, boyish charm. And Paul himself looks just tickled to find himself so abruptly thrust into the centre of this ready-made family.

It helps that Cholodenko is brilliant with actors, as was clear from her work with Radha Mitchell, Ally Sheedy and Patricia Clarkson in her 1998 debut High Art. Here, Mark Ruffalo plays an older, but not much wiser, version of his errant brother to Laura Linney in You Can Count On Me, a stylish but feckless loner with a winning smile: l'uomo vague, if you will. Julianne Moore also convinces as the flaky, floaty Jules, who punishes others for her own fatally susceptible temperament – her appalling treatment of a Mexican gardener is an unresolved failure of class that may also be a sly dig at liberal hypocrisy.

Best of all, and a reason alone to see this film, is Annette Bening as the fearsomely brittle Nic. Bening, who came to movies relatively late (vamping up a storm in The Grifters) is enjoying a career resurgence at an age – 52 – when most leading ladies are being pensioned off. It's notable, too, that she has refrained from having "work" done on her face, the screen actor's most precious gift, and gets her reward for it here in a bravura scene over dinner. Having worked her socks off to be nice to Paul, praising his food ("it's so indigenous!") and performing a hilariously high-strung excerpt from Joni Mitchell's "Blue", she retreats to the bathroom and intuits, belatedly, that she has been betrayed. But it is the face she wears on her return to the dinner-table that lifts the scene to greatness, for it conveys at once the social front, and the sense of hurt and loss howling behind her eyes, like a high-tension cable in a squall. I wanted to hug Bening for the nerve, not to say the nerviness, of this performance. If there's any justice she should be planning her outfits now for the awards season.

As for the kids, they provide, through their curiosity, a motor for the plot, without quite getting their due thereafter. Wasikowska does have a lovely, wordless scene at the end when she's dropped off at college and looks about her dorm, perhaps wondering what it might be like to have peace and quiet for a change.

Josh Hutcherson is also good as "sensitive jock" Laser, and gets to ask a question no parent, of whatever sexual orientation, ever wants to hear: "Why do you guys watch gay-man porn?" I wondered about that, too. Perhaps the most endearing thing about both brother and sister is how normal and steady they are – not all teens adopt a sulky attitude and body-piercings as their armour. These kids are more than alright. It's the grown-ups who should be a cause for concern.

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